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Justice eludes tenants

On most days in landlord-tenant court in Baltimore City District Court, the only issue is: "Did you pay your rent?" If not, you are on the street. No defense is allowed, such as "I was sick and lost time from work," "My benefit check did not arrive," or even, "We have no hot water and there is mold growing in the apartment because of the leaky roof." The tenant must be able to pay the full amount to even raise a legal claim that the housing is posing a health danger. If rent due has not been paid, and the tenant cannot pay the full amount, the tenant is summarily evicted. This story is repeated hundreds of times each month in Baltimore.

Why are so many unable to pay their rent? Because even sub-standard housing has become unaffordable to people living on a low income. The cheapest rents for even a run-down one bedroom in Baltimore are around $700 per month. Many low-wage earners work full-time, minimum wage jobs with take-home pay of a little over $1,000 a month.

The consequences of evictions are severe for the tenants, but also for the health of our city. Challenges to landlords' failure to maintain their properties are seldom heard. Evictions exacerbate urban poverty. In Baltimore and many large cities, they tend to disproportionately affect low-income, African-American women with children, as described by Matthew Desmond in his article "Eviction and the Reproduction of Urban Poverty." Having an eviction on your record makes it much harder to secure affordable housing in a safer neighborhood. Repeated moves wreak havoc on young children's ability to do well in school.

A recent article Baltimore Sun article described a new initiative by medical providers to do outreach to low-income people in West Baltimore in an attempt to address social determinants of health that result in poor health outcomes. But these efforts will not be as effective as they might be until we do something serious about the lack of affordable, habitable housing.

Many Baltimore residents live in substandard conditions that threaten their health. In the Landlord-Tenant Clinic that I direct, we have worked with many clients in such conditions. One recent client was living in a newly rented basement apartment that flooded three times during her 16 months there. Mold growth made her breathing difficulties worse. In another case, until we got involved the landlord refused to address rodent problems or make repairs. The client's refrigerator broke, and despite promises the landlord never fixed or replaced it. Our client ended up in the hospital because his insulin, which was to be refrigerated, became ineffective and he went into shock. In a third case, our client moved into a rowhouse with abandoned houses on either side of it. The roof leaked and the doors and windows were not secure, leading to break-ins. Rat tunnels entered her dwelling from both sides.

Unfortunately, these are not unusual examples.

Landlords are able to rent these places because of a desperate lack of decent, affordable housing. Because virtually no tenants have legal representation, landlords have been getting away with this for decades, despite laws regarding the warranty of habitability intended to protect tenants. In fact, in Baltimore City District Court, some judges refuse to allow tenants to file a rent escrow claim as a defense to the landlord's request to evict them for nonpayment of rent. Instead, tenants must file a petition initiating an action against the landlord. Tenants must pay a filing fee or seek a waiver of the fee based on indigency. Then, if the tenant wants the two cases to be heard together, he or she must file a "motion to consolidate" the two cases. Not surprisingly, such petitions are filed only by a very small number of tenants who are persistent and sufficiently confident to navigate these requirements.

In the meantime, despite the city's efforts, the housing stock and poor neighborhoods all over Baltimore continue to deteriorate.

So what is the answer? One step in the right direction would be to remove court-created obstacles to tenants using statutory authority to enforce the warranty of habitability. If tenants were encouraged to file rent escrow petitions/defenses in appropriate cases, landlords would have more incentive to properly maintain their properties. The tenant's rent would be paid into court until the landlord has proved to the court's satisfaction that appropriate repairs have been made.

In addition, the courts have the authority to abate the amount of rent the tenant should pay if the defects in the property pose a serious health risk. They should use this power, which would also result in fewer evictions each month.

These steps would benefit not only current tenants but future residents — as well as all of Baltimore.

Deborah Weimer is a professor at the University of Maryland's Francis King Carey School of Law. Her email is weimer@law.umaryland.edu.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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